At three years old, I saw a man in a mask climb over the balcony of our apartment. He stood by the pots of forget-me-nots and looked through the sliding glass door, and I was on the other side looking back. Terrified, I ran to wake my parents and tell them what I had seen. They went with me to investigate; there was no longer any man. They told me I’d had a nightmare. To this day, I have an image of that man, frozen in place, staring at me through the sliding glass door, and I cannot tell you if he was real or not.
Does it matter if the memory is real?
I do not carry the past like a backpack. I cannot point to a physical object when you ask where I hurt. I only know that the past shadows me. I still flinch when a man raises his voice and gets too close. Even if the last time a boy clenched his fist around my throat was 15 years ago.
You wrote to me years after we’d both graduated from high school. By then, you were in Iraq, fighting yourself, knowing the enemy was inside and not out there in that desert that took your sleep, too many of your friends. Those were your words. Also your words: that you’d had a lot of time to think and needed to apologize. You said my father beat my mom when she was pregnant with me, she almost lost me, I was born with anger in my veins.
You said you understood then why you had hurt me. That I had seemed so much better than you and you needed to bring me down to your level, so you wouldn’t lose me. An act of love. And here I was thinking I’d always been nothing, less than nothing even.
I’m packing for graduate school. I find the notes we wrote each other in those hazy first-love high school days. I read about things you did to me that I don’t even remember. I read about your ridiculous ambush with balloons and roses on Valentine’s Day and how special I felt when they were delivered to my homeroom. I read about my humiliation when you punched the glass window on the door of my photography class when I hadn’t done your homework, how it shattered and your knuckles bled, how the security guard who walked you out when you were suspended turned to me and said, “Honey, he’ll do the same thing to your face, you know?” I did know.
And I didn’t answer your letter from Iraq. But if I had, maybe I would have said something like: I remember running my fingers over the scars that never left your knuckles, the same arm that bore a tattoo of my name. And the truth is that I want that type of scar, too, that kind of visible blood-letting I can point to and say, now you can feel, see, taste that it’s real.
As adults, some still say we’re making things up, that such heavy memory doesn’t square with childhood. Best to bury it with the rusty swing sets and broken dolls. Best to file with memories of Santa Claus, Tooth Fairies. Everything as Magic.
Some will say a 15-year-old girl is really a woman, some will say our parents are at fault, some will ask where were the adults with a shake of their heads, some will say they’re sorry young girls suffer from a lack of self-esteem, we need to do something about these girls. As in the same thing they said to us, as in what we always feared was true: we grew the roots of our own pain. We laid the match to each other; we watched our innocence burn and—we were children—must have called it a path to love.
Some will say, simply: Get over it.
I couldn’t go back to sleep when I was sure a man in the shadows was coming to hunt me. I’m 31, and I still can’t.
Gabriela Garcia is an MFA candidate in fiction at Purdue University and Fiction Editor of Sycamore Review. She tweets @gabimgarcia.